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Along Came Polly

Director: John Hamburg
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hank Azaria, Debra Messing, Jsu Garcia, Alec Baldwin

(Universal; US theatrical: 16 Jan 2004; 2004)

Risky

Notwithstanding the impact of Office Space in some circles, Jennifer Aniston’s career has been mostly defined by Rachel. Her movie roles to date are measurable mostly in relation to her work on Friends. So, as the “girlfriend” in She’s the One (1996), The Object of My Affection (1998), Rock Star (2001), and even Bruce Almighty (2003), she was either more or less like Rachel. This despite the fact that, in 2002’s The Good Girl, she was heralded for “breaking out,” for showing a capacity for dramatic detail that the sitcom hadn’t yet allowed her.


And now, Along Came Polly. Though plainly Ben Stiller’s vehicle, it features an endearing, oddly delicate performance by Aniston. Unsurprisingly, this film works for her in ways that Bruce didn’t, for the good reason that Stiller is, in fact, a generous costar, unlike the increasingly excruciating Jim Carrey, who sucks the air out of every scene he’s in. By contrast, Stiller, even while delivering his usual broadly poor-sap comedy, also falls back enough to grant his fellow players a chance to breathe.


All that said, Along Came Polly is decidedly unspecial. Another in a long line of Ben Stiller vehicles in which he is abused every whichway, it follows the formula laid out by There’s Something About Mary (1998), Meet the Parents (2000), and Duplex (2003). That is, Stiller’s Reuben Feffer, a calculatedly neurotic risk assessment analyst, is at the mercy of a series of cretins, egomaniacs, and cruel circumstances. During the film’s first moments, on his wedding day, Reuben frets that, with 23% of the guests over 70, one is likely to break a hip on the newly waxed floor.


Sharp as he is with numbers, Reuben is, predictably, considerably less adept with emotional shading. And so, he’s shocked when his new bride, Lisa (Debra Messing), cheats on him during their tropical honeymoon with French-sounding scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria, frighteningly tanned and muscled up). She decides to stay behind on the island, scuba diving into eternity, while Reuben heads back to NYC, his insurance company job, and the suburban three-bedroom house he’s bought as a surprise for wifey.


As this major purchase suggests, Polly‘s running joke—concerning Reuben’s nerdy aversion to “risk”—crops up erratically. This means that he leaps headfirst into a series of dicey situations, and is then called on to behave as though he has no idea how he got into them. Playing pickup basketball with his longtime friend Sandy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a former teen tv star who continues to wallow in egotistical nostalgia, he ends up guarding a hairy, sweaty, beefy brute of a guy, such that he has his face smooshed into his opponent’s slimy, germy chest, in slow motion. Or, he’s in the men’s room at work with his boss, Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin), who fondles poor Reuben’s ear after not washing his hands. As gimmicks go, this one wears thin pretty much immediately.


The counterpoint to Reuben’s uptightness is, predictably, Polly’s free spirit: a high school classmate he re-meets by accident following the Lisa trauma, Polly’s lived all over the world (Morocco, Sri Lanka, Buffalo) and religiously avoided long-term commitments. The film grants her a bit of “psychological” background for this (dad’s “second” family), just as it blames Reuben’s mother Vivian (Michelle Lee) for his neuroses, but such particulars are mostly means to get the two “opposites” to realize their attraction, eventually.


In other words, writer-director John Hamburg, who worked with Stiller on Parents as well as Zoolander, delivers rom-com formula (see, for instance, Annie Hall) without too much tweaking. So, Polly takes Reuben to eat spicy food, whereupon his Irritable Bowel Syndrome kicks in, so that he sweats and grimaces, all the while protesting that oh no, he’s fine. A waitress with an upscale caterer, Polly keeps a blind ferret in her apartment (and like the dog in Mary, it is subject to various abuses), hasn’t unpacked her moving boxes after four months, and is also an aspiring children’s book author/illustrator: she shows Reuben her latest effort, which includes what Reuben calls a “very graphic” illustration demonstrating the dangers of “playing with fireworks.” Cute. And, like most every scene in this episodic film, its own little moment, unrelated to what comes before or after.


The general idea is that Polly’s entrance into Reuben’s sphere encourages him to rethink the way he understands and even appreciates “risk.” Polly takes Reuben to an “underground” salsa club, where at first he can only watch her shimmy and slink with handsome, hip-swiveling Javier (Jsu Garcia). That is, until he takes lessons himself, in an effort to impress Polly and not-quite-goose the film with yet another set-piece showcasing Reuben’s gonzo awkwardness.


His career is also affected, as the movie plainly needs more antics to fill up the running time. When Reuben is assigned to assess the world-traveling daredevil, place-jumper, and crocodile wrestler, Leland (Bryan Brown), the decision looks, on its face, easy. The man is clearly uninsurable, based on Reuben’s patented assessment software, he’s also completely charming and irresistibly high-spirited; that is, he embodies a life lesson for Reuben, even as he appears to put his life in jeopardy, repeatedly. Reuben’s decision regarding Leland, in other words, will inform his decision regarding Polly.


By the time Reuben and Polly confront one another, aboard Leland’s violently pitching sailboat, the metaphors are all depleted. They argue while slamming into walls, furniture, and one another. Reuben’s destined to fulfill his predictable plan and Polly’s equally typed, “on the non-plan plan.” While Stiller no doubt has a slew of Fokkers films to make, there’s still hope for Aniston. Friends is almost done.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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